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Dreams & The Hero’s Journey

NOTE: TRANSCRIPT from discussion at bottom of post.


I had never been drawn to politics- but, for some reason, I suddenly became involved in my current community of Santa Cruz, California.

Perhaps because this is a highly opinionated place, a place where there are about twice as many opinions as people, a place where politics is in the air, the upper limit of participatory democracy, a place where protests are organized at the drop of a hat.

There is even a book called The Leftmost City, describing the history of civic involvement in Santa Cruz.

My participation started innocently enough.

I’ve been involved in transportation much of my life, and my family tree is full of mechanical branches (probably bolted on), people designing cars, airplanes, freeways, even railways through the wilderness and before that, marriages to Pony Express riders.


Restless motion runs through my veins, hot oil and hurtling metal. So it’s not surprising that transportation was the lure that caught this fish.


Shortly after the end of the US Civil War, the newly unified and expanding country experienced rampant growth and transformation.


The 1870’s


The 1870s probably changed the infrastructure of the US more than the previous century had. The landscape was awash in elbows and pickaxes and dust, building as if there was no tomorrow.

In the spirit of those times, a railway was constructed bisecting Santa Cruz County. Even then politics mattered—who was in favor, who wasn’t, who was part of the in crowd, who wasn’t.

The vicissitudes of opinions are reflected in the twists and turns of the tracks, and trains started running in 1875.

The tracks were used steadily up until 2003, the same year I arrived in town. I saw those tracks and wondered if they were being used and if not, why not.

Since the county had been settled by rail, the morphology of settlement still followed the alignment of the rail line, though the magnetic pull of auto-centric transportation and a 1950s freeway had distorted the pattern of beads on a string that characterizes rail-oriented development.


A Case of Naivete


I naively wrote an Op-Ed for the local paper. They naively printed it.

An entire subterranean community of malcontents reached out to me and said, “We need you! You’re singing our song!” 

I got involved 18 years ago, figuring it would be good to do something for my community.

I met people. I went to endless meetings, speakers droning on like jugged bees. I wrote letters and editorials. I did research. I took over leadership positions.


A Pitched Battle


I figured I would do this for two or three years, enough to help the idea of resurrecting passenger rail along. 

It took longer than two or three years.

It was like pulling a train with my teeth à la Jack LaLanne.

Many bureaucrats had to be convinced at every stage, once involving a state government building auditorium filled with people blowing toy train whistles. Massively funded and organized opposition materialized.

We rose to the challenge.


The rail line in question

The rail line in question

Victory At Last


But this last week was a major victory, a decision by the powers-that-be to create an engineering plan for a full-scale passenger rail system, quiet and electric, and to set about marshaling the considerable pile of money required to do this.

I didn’t cause this all to happen by myself, but I kept the lights on at numerous critical junctions when the effort was small and fragile.


A Circuitous Path


This caused me to reflect on the circuitous path that got me here.

If I had been told back in 2004 that getting to a satisfactory point in my nascent political life would take 18 years, I would have said, “No thanks!”

As I’ve often heard said, “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.”

This then caused me to think about how many other aspects of life might have similar characteristics, such as getting academic degrees, pursuing careers, creating art or music, raising children, amassing wealth, etc. 

Maybe complex and rewarding activities are marked by a kind of underestimation, a systemic wishful thinking combined with a forgetting of painful detail. 

“If I knew how hard it was going to be or how long it was going to take, I would have never done it.” 

This doesn’t mean that everything worth doing is going to be incredibly hard and take incredibly long, but I think it means you shouldn’t be surprised if it works out that way.

In fact it can be a different kind of psychological challenge if something important and valuable happens too easily. Both of these extremes relate to coming to terms with expectations. 


With gratitude from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


P.S. We’re getting closer to releasing our newest book: The Adjacent Possible: Guidebook & Stories of Artistic Transformation. Meanwhile, nab a copy of the first book in the series: The Adjacent Possible: Evolve Your Art From Blank Canvas To Prolific Artist.




The Adjacent Possible- Book Excellence Award Winner- Art

The Adjacent Possible– Book Excellence Award Winner- Art



TRANSCRIPT of Discussion

00:00:00 Hey everyone. I’m Dr. Nancy Hillis and I’m Dr. Bruce Sawhill and today we wanted to come on on this Sunday and talk about something we’ve been talking about in the conversation together. And that is the topic of dreams and how we have dreams for our life and for our art and how that connects to the hero’s journey. And so I was thinking about how, you know,

00:00:24 you might this big dream to be, be an artist, be an artist that, where you love your art, where you’re surprised by the art you’re making sort of be the artist of your dreams. Or it could be something like writing, a book, which is something that Any, any large creative enterprise, what brought this up is that I had a major victory that had been 18 years in process this last week.

00:00:50 And we’ll talk about that later. That’s right. And it, you know, I was just thinking about though, dreams could be anything, it could be writing book, like, as you know, I think some of you know, Bruce and I have been writing a book together, you know, and it’s going to include 25 artists and their amazing stories and their artwork as well.

00:01:08 Or it could be composing music like you do. Right? And like, I wanted to do more of Whatever it is for you, right. It might be to play a musical instrument, whatever that dream is, it’s calling you. And the tendency at first is to refuse. It’s the refusal. And this is something Bruce and I write about and it’s threads through everything that we write about.

00:01:33 And so, and then another piece of that is when you finally get past the refusal, and you finally say yes, I’m going to do this, then you’re plunged into perils and that’s where the fear can arise and the self-doubt and all that. Thankfully, we have mentors and guides, right Bruce? Yeah. Yes. And we also want to talk about this idea of,

00:01:55 oh, I don’t know- retrodiction meaning that, you know, there’s probably lots of things in everybody’s life where you look back on something you did generally, something you’re happy you did and say, you know, if somebody had told me how hard it was going to be at the beginning, I would’ve never done it. And so there’s a lesson in there as to not dissuading yourself prematurely.

00:02:19 That’s very important. And that’s that piece too, around self-doubt, you know, where you’re also, you get plunged into the dark night of the soul where you think, what was I thinking? This is taking so long. We’ve got two stories about that- and all of that. So let’s look at this for a minute. So in these conversations we have Bruce, for you,

00:02:41 it’s been two different things that kind of come at this at different angles, this whole issue of the hero’s journey, Right. Both involved a lot of twists and turns. So hero’s journey in that sense and setbacks and victories. So maybe I start with the one that was most recent, the one that kicked this all off and has nothing to do with art or music or writing or science it has to do with being socially and politically involved.

00:03:07 So that’s something I never did in my life. I thought, well, I’m, I’m too introverted for this. I’m not really interested. I can’t make a difference. I’m not trained. So 18 years ago, shortly after I moved to Santa Cruz county, I became aware that there was an old rail line that ran through the county that had been there 150 years.

00:03:28 And I thought, well, gosh, this goes to beautiful places. A lot of us along the ocean. It’s amazing. And then I found out that it wasn’t being used anymore. I thought, well, we should use it. And I, and I got involved in that whole process and there are many, many details, but I thought, wow,

00:03:44 I’ll write a few op-eds, I’ll speak at some meetings and maybe in two or three years, well I’ll feel that I contributed something into the whole thing, we’ll be back towards reusing the rail line again. And in this particular case, the idea of a trail alongside it, and then passenger rail running on the line, which was about 20 miles from here to the main line that runs from Seattle to LA connecting our county with the rest of the world.

00:04:10 Well, it took 18 years And it was a pitched battle. It was a pitched battle at times, lots of, lots of NIMBYs, lots of bureaucratic resistance, even organized and well-funded resistance, but you know, that’s all details. Last week, our transportation commission voted to go set about acquiring many millions of dollars to go about designing a passenger rail system. And the trail part of it is already underway.

00:04:39 So I feel that I had a great deal to do with this, but it took, if somebody had told me this in 2004, how hard it was going to be, I would’ve said, nah, I’ll do something else. I think that gets at a piece here where it’s like, you’re, you’ve got this dream and you finally move past the refusal and you finally said yes,

00:05:00 but then the problems arise, right? The perils, the dark night of the soul, all that where you start to say, Hey, what was I thinking? And see, that’s the part where one could give up. But what’s important is to not give up, to keep going. Okay. And we had our moments with this forthcoming book where we started this two years ago and it got way more complex than we thought it was going to be with all the stories and the images and the interviews and all that- but

00:05:31 you’ve got to somehow hold on through that dark night. And I think we did. And the challenges I think, ended up being the most compelling part of this new book. I think the stories are going to be the most interesting thing, because it talks about how real people deal with these kind of theoretical abstract concepts that we talk about, like hero’s journey and dark night of the soul and phase transitions stuff from science and stuff from psychology.

00:06:01 And how does this actually manifest in the lives of individual artists? And at first we thought, well, will people be interested in doing this? We got very little uptake at first because people were, again, addresses the issue. People were very shy about writing about themselves, especially if it was going to be printed for all the world to see,

00:06:20 but we figured out a way around that. And then we ended up with an avalanche of stories. And so that’s, that’s how the book kind of met its big challenge and transcended it. That’s right. So this forthcoming book is called The Adjacent Possible: Guidebook & Stories of Artistic Transformation. And it’s essentially the stories of 25 artists and how their art transformed and their lives transformed through concepts involving the adjacent possible.

00:06:50 And if any of you want to understand more about the adjacent possible, you might want to get our first book, which won a Book Excellence Award. This is a review copy, but essentially this is The Adjacent Possible: Evolve. Your Art From Blank Canvas To Prolific Artist. This describes and talks about and animates this concept of the adjacent possible, which comes from evolutionary biology and the intersection of math and science essentially.

00:07:20 And it’s all about creativity. We believe it’s the art and science creativity. So you might get that book first, read it because the second in the series is coming. It’s the one with the green cover that you all chose. And we’re so excited to get these stories out to you about that. So that’s coming really soon. So yeah, we had this big dream to write this book together and to bring in 25 artists.

00:07:47 And so, you know, I I’d like for you to think about what’s your dream. Okay. What is the dream that’s been calling you or that calls you right now that maybe you’ve been refusing and maybe think about that and reflect on that and see if you might step into that dream, you might say, yes, we talk about zero to one this concept in mathematics.

00:08:10 that from nothing to something is larger, that interval is larger than one to two, two to three, three to four and so on. So that movement of saying yes and going ahead anyway is enormous. So I encourage you in that. Bruce has another story from his own experience. He is a musician and composer. And so there was something about that in music for you,

00:08:31 right? When I was a freshman in college, my first few days on campus, there’s a quadrangle. And I walked up to this beautiful ornate sandstone church. And I had gotten interested in organ music for about a year before and had been dabbling at teaching myself. But somebody was playing the stuffing out of this gigantic pipe organ in this church. And I thought,

00:08:55 wow, that’s so cool. I want to learn how to do that. And I didn’t have the expectation. This is all about expectations. I didn’t have the expectation that I would become a performing concert organ is like I eventually did. I just thought that’s so cool. I want to learn how to do it. It’s like looking at the cockpit of an aircraft and saying,

00:09:12 I’d like to sit in the pilot seat and see how everything works. Not necessarily fly from, you know, San Francisco to Sydney, Australia. So not going in there with expectations actually made it a lot easier because each step was the adjacent possible. Well, let’s see, I’m learning how to use my hands. Maybe I can start learning how to use my feet.

00:09:35 And then I thought, well, maybe I can start learning all the voices, all the different sounds the organ can make. And then we can start learning about interpreting certain composers of the German Baroque and, and so on. It was step-by-step adjacent possible by adjacent possible. One thing leads to the next and something opens and surprises you, because you don’t know ahead of time,

00:09:53 what’s going to happen. And I think that that piece you were just saying about really kind of dropping the expectations and not worrying about, you know, being this great musician or maybe this great composer or maybe this fabulous artist, but rather just saying yes and just stepping into it right now and see where it leads you. And hopefully it takes you somewhere new and it just takes you one step at a time,

00:10:21 right? Yes. And there’s the opposite of the railroad experience where I thought, how hard can this be? You know, we’ve got some track, we’ve got a locomotive and some coaches and run them back and forth. It’s not rocket science, it’s railroad science.It turns out that it was a lot more complicated than that. Yeah. Yeah.

00:10:40 You never know. So that’s our invitation to you is, you know, look at what your dreams are. There may be one, there may be more, what are these dreams or what is the dream that’s calling you? And what if you said yes. And what if you stepped into it, you know, from zero to one and just went ahead anyway,

00:10:59 not worrying about masterpieces, but just literally stepping into the unknown, stepping into the adjacent possible and saying yes to your art and to your dreams. So that’s our invitation for you today. I hope you enjoy this and enjoy these little stories of art and music and trains and dreams. So thanks for being here and see you soon. Bye bye. Bye.

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